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Henry Slade interview: ‘My OCD was so bad, I’d blame mistakes on not tying my laces properly’

Henry Slade is undecided. Perhaps it was more serious than amusing, he says, but sometimes he goes the other way on that. At the least, he can now see it for what it was. And so he stands up to illustrate how he used to live before the changes that helped him become a likely starter for England at the World Cup.

‘See this,’ he says, tapping on a sliding door to the balcony at Camberley Rugby Club in Surrey. ‘I would have to close it in a particular way.’ 

He puts his left index finger on the top corner of a rectangular handle. ‘I’d have to touch it just right,’ he says. ‘I’d have to let go of the handle at just the right point when it closes. If it was even slightly off I’d have to do it again. That’s the way it used to be…’ 

On his feet, you can see more progress. ‘Look at these laces,’ he says. ‘That was another thing.’

The laces on his right trainer are neat. Those on the left have twisted. Innocuous to most but an uncomfortable sight to him that would have needed urgent correction not so long ago.

‘The boys in the dressing room would be laughing at me, watching me tying my laces for 15 minutes,’ Slade says. ‘The laces on these trainers here, they are different now to what they would have been. I’d have needed to make them perfectly flat on both feet. They would have got to me if they were like this.

‘It sounds strange, but if something like that wasn’t right, or if I hadn’t put my boots on right, and we are only talking a couple of years ago, then I would worry about something going wrong to me, or friends or family.

‘I know it is ridiculous, but that is the way I was.’

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is a fascinating topic. Medical journals measure its prevalence in the general population at a little over two per cent, from the quirky to the serious, and Slade, 26, was somewhere on that scale, as he explains in detail for the first time here.

Other examples in sport are easy to find — David Beckham cannot have an odd number of any one item in his fridge, Rafael Nadal has to line up his drinks bottles in a particular order with their labels pointing the same way, and Rebecca Adlington could only set her alarm to a two, four or six.

There are many more and it is logical to wonder if that triangle of process, performance and pressure makes an athlete more vulnerable than most. A New Scientist article in 2009 touched on the rituals and superstitions that might help control the anxieties of a sporting life, and they put forward the idea that those same obsessive tendencies can both fuel practice and also be unhealthy. It’s the latter part that can sometimes get lost in the jokes we make.

Slade’s tale, some parts of which are told with humour and others without, indicates a situation that was problematic enough to warrant a conscious effort to change around 18 months ago. For the Exeter centre, who has been one of the standout performers for club and country in 2019, his experience with OCD went back to when he was seven or eight, growing up on a farm in Plymouth.

‘I don’t know what started it, but it was with everything,’ he says. ‘Light switches, getting into bed, cleaning my teeth, everything. It was always around numbers. If I didn’t do something in a way that I perceived to be right, then I had to do it again to the next number, so it could be three, six, 10 times, 20. Lights getting switched on and off, all that.

‘Going to bed used to take so long, getting myself right. I would clean my teeth so meticulously, making sure I got the right numbers on each tooth.’

The compulsions were often in plain sight of his team-mates during his rise from Ivybridge RFC in the seventh tier to now, with Slade’s career having yielded a Premiership title with Exeter, via an Under-20s World Cup triumph in 2013 and a fringe role in Stuart Lancaster’s senior squad at the 2015 World Cup.

‘I used to room with Jack Nowell [his Exeter and England team-mate] and he used to bark at me about the OCD,’ Slade says with a laugh. ‘Lights, teeth, everything.

‘It was there in my rugby and life for a long while. I used to compound errors on the pitch by thinking of the last one, wondering if it is because of this or that. Before I would blame it on something as simple as not shutting the door right.

‘If I put my boots on wrong, I would feel like I was not going to play very well, little things like that. I would train well and then think if I made a mistake it was because of the way I did my boots.

‘Of course I realise it was all actually ridiculous. But then I would worry if I didn’t do things a certain way then maybe something would happen.’

Slade eventually decided around 18 months ago that it needed to be addressed. He says he sought help to deal his compulsions and he can see a link between those steps and the subsequent improvements in his performances. 

He was always regarded as a major talent and versatile enough to operate at 10, 12 or 13, but it was at the most recent Six Nations that he truly seemed to come of age for England. With the World Cup commencing next month in Japan, Slade seems a safe bet to be in the starting XV, having featured in each of the past 12 internationals.

‘Dealing with it has helped me playing,’ he says. ‘It [OCD] is a hard thing to break. Looking from the outside I knew I was just being ridiculous. I started trialling it in training, breaking the routines, and it was fine, no one was hurt, obviously, and I was able to start taking it into games, which was nerve-wracking.

‘But eventually it started to work. You just keep forcing yourself to do it and once you have a few decent games, it sinks in.’

Some of the old traits remain. As he contests the Quilter Internationals ahead of the flight to Japan, there is still the quirk of how Slade dresses – he starts by wiping the sole of his left foot, separates the small toe from the next before putting on his sock and repeating the routine with the right foot.

Compared to what went before, it is simple. And partially through that simplicity, Slade has developed into one of the most reliable talents in an England squad that needs to put right the calamity of the 2015 World Cup.

He was mostly on the bench back then. His situation is different in all manner of ways this time round.

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